from The Story of Liberty
By Charles Carleton Coffin
DOCTOR JOHN WICKLIF has been dead these forty years, and his bones have been lying the while in Lutterworth Church-yard; but it has been decreed by the great Council of Constance that they shall lie there no longer. A party of monks, with pick and spade, have dug them up, and now they kindle a fire, burn them to powder, and shovel the ashes into a brook which sweeps past the church-yard; and the brook bears them on to the Avon, which, after winding through Stratford meadows, falls into the Severn, and the Severn bears them to the sea.
But why are the monks so intent upon annihilating the doctor’s bones? Because the doctor, who was a preacher, though he has been dead so long, still continues to preach! The monks will have no more of it; and they think that by getting rid of his bones they will put an end to his preaching. They forget that there are some things which the fire will not burn – such as truth, liberty, justice. Little do they think that the doctor will keep on preaching; that his parish will be the world, his followers citizens of every land; that his preaching will bring about a new order of things in human affairs; that thrones will be overturned; that sovereigns will become subjects, and subjects sovereigns.
A century has passed since the Magna Charta was obtained, but not much liberty has come from that document yet. The people are still villains. The kings and the barons plunder them; the monks, friars, bishops, and archbishops – a swarm of men live upon them. They must pay taxes to the king, to the barons, and to the priests; and they have no voice in saying what or how much the taxes will be. They are ignorant. They have no books. Not one man in a thousand can read.
The priests, however, are not all of them wicked. There are some who, instead of spending their time in ale-houses, or in plundering their parishioners, look kindly after their welfare. Some are learned men, educated at Oxford or Cambridge, who exhort the people to lead honest lives. The man whose bones the monks are burning was a good priest, a learned man. We may think of him as attending school, when a boy, at Oxford, graduating from one of the colleges; and, after graduating he studies theology, and become a priest, and preaches in the Oxford churches. He is so learned and eloquent that the people come in crowds to hear him.
Sometimes he preaches in London, at the preaching-place erected in the streets. He has great crowds to hear him on Sunday, and works hard through the weeks, translating a book from Latin into the English language – the Bible. The only Bibles in England are in the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, abbeys and monasteries, and in some of the churches. They are all in Latin and Hebrew, written on parchment. Scarcely one person in ten thousand has ever read a Bible. Doctor Wicklif believes that the people have a right to read it although the Pope has forbidden its reading by any except the priests, monks, and bishops, and other prelates of the church.
But into what dialect shall he translate it? – for there is no uniform language in England. In the Eastern countries – the East Midland section, as it is called, where the Saxons first landed and obtained a foothold – the language is almost wholly Saxon; in the Southern counties – all along the South shore, where the Normans landed- the language is largely Norman.
Doctor Wicklif selects the East Midland – his own native dialect – which is spoken by a majority of the people; besides it is strong, vigorous and expressive. Many other preachers believe that the people have a right to read the Bible, and clerks are set to work making copies of the translation, which are placed on desks in the churches, and chained, so that no one can take them away.
The people listen to the reading with wonder and delight. They begin to think; and when men begin to think, they take a step toward freedom. They see that the Bible gives them rights which hitherto have been denied them – the right to read, to acquire knowledge. Schools are started. Men and women, who until now know not one letter of the alphabet, learn to read: children teach their parents. It is the beginning of a new life – a new order of things in the community – the beginning of liberty.
When Doctor Wicklif selected the Midland dialect for his translation of the Bible, he little knew that he was laying the foundations, as it were, of the strongest and most vigorous language ever used by human beings for the expression of their thoughts; but it has become the English language – the one aggressive language of the world – the language of Liberty.
It was in 1385 that Doctor Wicklif died. The grass grows over his grave. Forty-one years pass, pilgrims come from afar to visit the spot where he is buried; they break off pieces of his tombstone, and carry them away as relics. The monks and friars will have no more of that. They will not have a man who has been dead nearly a century keep on preaching if they can prevent it, for the doctor has a great following; half of England, and nearly all of Bohemia, have accepted his teachings.
The Great Council of Constance has ordered that the doctor’s bones be dug up and burned; and the monks, as we have seen, execute the order. They cast the ashes into the river, and the river bears them to the sea. They have got rid of doctor Wicklif. Have they? Not quite.